How do I sell to an account
that is firmly in the hands of a competitor?
In one form or another,
I hear that question at almost every sales seminar I teach. It's a great question,
reflecting one of the most perplexing and frustrating situations every sales
person faces. If you haven't yet been faced with this problem, be patient, you
will soon be.
Here's how this usually
develops: You've called on a high-potential account a number of times, but can't
seem to get anywhere. The more time you spend in the account, the more apparent
it is that one or more of your competitors are deeply ingrained as suppliers
to that account. You may even have had someone say to you, "We do all our business
with XYZ competitor."
And that leaves you on the
outside looking in. If the account has some real potential, you want to be seriously
considered as a supplier. But it looks like this account is not really interested
in you - not because of you or your company, but because of a previously established
strong relationship with a competitor.
So, how do you manage this
account? What should you do?
Let's start with what
not to do.
Don't vent your frustration
by speaking poorly about the competition. And don't attack the competitor's
products, company, practices or salespeople. Someone who works for this customer
- or more likely, several people who work there - chose to do business with
that competitor. They have chosen to buy the competitor's products, have developed
a close working relationship, and may be good friends outside of work. When
you speak badly about the competition, you insult all those decisions made by
the customer to work with that particular competitor. Trying to penetrate an
account by insulting your customer's judgement is not a particularly effective
Realize, also, that you
have only a tiny glimpse of what your competitor is really like. You may have
found some evidence in another account of their ineptness, or what you perceive
as unethical behavior. And on the basis of this tiny experience, you're ready
to launch a holy crusade to reveal their deep flaws and expose the risks of
doing business with them.
That is almost never the
truth. Almost always, your competitor is a company with the products, ethics,
business systems, people and goals that are very similar to yours. Very few
companies survive in this highly competitive market place if they have shoddy
products, lax business morals, incompetent people, and poor operating systems.
When you criticize these things in your competitor, you show yourself to be
ignorant and inexperienced.
But what should you do?
Here are two proven techniques
to penetrate these kinds of accounts.
1. Go around the competition,
not through them.
This customer is probably
not buying everything from your primary competitor. There likely is a handful
of other suppliers selling items that you could supply. Focus on those. Find
items that are being purchased from someone other than the main vendor, and
present your company's options on those. Often these could be small quantities
of relatively inconspicuous items that don't appear on the radar screen of your
competitor. When you put together attractive programs and proposals for those
kinds of items, you don't threaten your customer's relationship with your competitor,
and you begin to show them the value of a relationship with you.
Be careful to keep a relatively
low profile in the account. You don't want to draw your competitor's attention.
At first, as you try to pick off some of these miscellaneous items you are very
vulnerable to your primary competitor finding and squashing you. As time goes
by and you're successful at becoming the supplier of a number of miscellaneous
items, you'll gain power and position within the account, and in so doing, build
some defenses against the ire of your competitor. You're always safer if your
competitor underestimates your activity and success within an account. So, at
least until you're well established, be as discreet and inconspicuous as possible.
Here's a number of ways
to implement this strategy of "going around the competition."
A. Find some area within
the customer's business where the competition is very weak. For example, when
I was selling hospital supplies, I discovered that one of my major competitors
was very strong in the operating room. The competitor had a wide range of products,
well-respected lines, a history of being active and interested in that area
of the hospital, and significant expertise in operating room procedures and
problems. So, I didn't bother with the operating room, and spent my time in
respiratory therapy and ICU. The competition never bothered to visit those departments.
I went around my competition by finding a department on which to focus where
the competition was weak.
B. Find some one who doesn't
like dealing with your competitor. This may take longer. In a large organization,
there are often dozens of decision-makers and influencers. It's likely that
one or more of them may not like dealing with your competitor. Maybe personalities
clashed sometime in the past, or someone felt slighted or treated rudely. Regardless,
some one inside that organization may not be your competitor's biggest fan.
Find that person(s).
But don't be too quick to
bet your future on that relationship. Before you begin to work with that person,
access that person's political power within the account. It may be that the
champion you selected is viewed as a perpetual complainer who never has any
constructive opinions to offer. If that's the case, you'll hurt yourself in
the account by aligning with him/her.
If you come to the conclusion
that your champion is a strong and respected player with in the account, then
focus on building a relationship and equipping that person to pursue his or
her own agenda with your assistance.
Here's the second major
strategy for penetrating the impenetrable account.
2. Make a persistent,
strong appeal to be the secondary supplier for that account.
Here's one important thing
you know about this customer: They are loyal to their key supplier. That indicates
a philosophical position this customer holds - these are people who believe
in loyalty to suppliers who do a good job in their account. That's why they
continue to buy from your competitor.
So, use that position to
your own advantage. Make a consistent appeal to the customer that they ought
to have the same kind of relationship with a back-up supplier - you. You're
not implying criticism of the primary supplier, but things that are out of their
control can happen, and the continuity of supplies can be interrupted. In that
case, it's to the customer's advantage to have a good relationship with a secondary
supplier. That's an argument that often resonates effectively within this kind
of account. If they agree with that position, then it follows that they need
to be doing some business with you in order to keep you interested and active
within the account. And that should lead to a discussion of what you can be
selling to them.
Both of these strategies
require you to be persistent in visiting the account and staying visible to
them, even in the face of little success or encouragement from them. Assuming
that the potential of the account is worth the investment, this persistency
may be your key strategy.
I was faced with this exact
situation on more than one occasion. As I was venting my frustration over a
particularly difficult account, my manager counseled me like this: "The only
thing you can count on," he said, " is that things will change. We don't know
how, and we don't know when, but we do know that things will change. Your job
is to stay in front of the customer and position yourself to be the customer's
easiest, lowest risk choice when things finally do change with the competition"
What great advice that turned
out to be. The best example was a medium-sized account not far from my home.
On my first call there, I met with the head of purchasing. After listening politely
to my presentation, he said, "Young man, we already have too many vendors. We
don't want to add new ones; we want to eliminate some we already have. Secondly,
we don't know much about your company, but what we do know we don't like. So,
I'd advise you not to waste your time here."
I considered that a real
So, about six weeks later,
I returned with my strongest product. This was a product called suction tubing,
which is a stable item in a hospital. Every hospital uses it in all sorts of
ways and places throughout their operations. We had an exclusive with the country's
largest and best manufacturer of suction tubing, coupled with excellent pricing.
He couldn't say no to my deal on suction tubing.
Again, he listened patiently
to my presentation. When I had finished, he said, "We don't use any." I looked
through the open door of his office, and saw a supply cart in the hall outside,
with suction tubing hanging from it. He was lying to me. I knew it, and he knew
that I knew it.
"This really is going to
be a challenge," I thought to myself. As I reflected on the account, it became
apparent that he was protecting a relationship with my arch competitor. I decided
on two lines of attack: Find someone to sell to who wasn't enamored with the
competitor, and hang in there as an easy choice if, and when, the competitor
That's exactly what happened.
I found one of the purchasing agents who was interested in what my company had
to offer. When the competitor was backordered on an item, the customer turned
to us. We were able to deliver. That eventually lead to our obtaining the contract
for that item. And that opened the door, gave me a foothold in the account,
and allowed me an opportunity to begin working within it.
Three years later, that
account had become one of my best. I had penetrated it to a greater degree than
any others. And, the head of purchasing that had previously so ardently protected
the relationship with my competitor, now just as ardently protected the relationship
That is what makes it all
worthwhile. Almost always, those accounts that protect a relationship with your
competitor will just as fervently protect the relationship with you when you
become their primary supplier. The payoff is well worth the investment.